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Quake Relief Effort Picks Up : U.S. Promises $283 Million More Aid to L.A. : Disaster: Number still needing shelter drops as more tent cities are in place. Officials concede they underestimated impact. Meanwhile, Caltrans may install temporary bridges over freeway gaps.

January 23, 1994|ERIC MALNIC and JOHN HURST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With a reprieve in the weather and a break from unnerving aftershocks, relief and repair efforts accelerated Saturday as tent cities sprang up across the San Fernando Valley and the White House promised an additional $283 million in federal earthquake aid.

Officials preparing for next week's expected commuter crush also said they are considering whether to erect temporary two-lane bridges over gaps in the Simi Valley and Santa Monica Freeways.

Five days after the Los Angeles area was rocked by a 6.6 magnitude quake, the developments reflect improved delivery of relief services and recognition that the efforts, though sizable, have not been enough to cope with what looms as one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

"I don't think any of us realized the magnitude of it all," said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With a one-day reprieve from expected rains, the region began the weekend with no major aftershocks, no rise in the death toll of 55 from Monday's magnitude 6.6 quake, and word that the number of those sleeping in parks and on the streets had decreased by thousands--a sign, perhaps, that those who could return to their homes were doing so.

And amid scenes of tent encampments and rubble-strewn sidewalks were a few signs of life getting back to normal--including joggers taking to the parks and streets.

Still, there were plenty of distressing quake-related statistics amid other developments:

*The number of structures declared uninhabitable in the city climbed to more than 1,600, encompassing 7,421 housing units. Damage to those buildings reached $460 million--a figure that will grow considerably since building inspectors expect to be assessing damage at least for another week.

*In the city of Santa Clarita, more than 1,600 private and public structures were damaged by the quake, and estimated damage costs reached $127.8 million, city officials said. More than 120 buildings had been declared uninhabitable or were open only for occupants to gather belongings--but these numbers, too, were expected to rise in the days to come.

*Estimates of those still sleeping outside in parks and vacant lots dropped to 9,000, compared to 14,500 on Friday. The unseasonably warm weather held on Saturday, but there was a 60% chance of some rain by tonight when temperatures could fall to the low 40s. With rain possible, officials were hurrying to open more tent cities, particularly in the quake-ravaged valley.

*The Los Angeles Unified School District planned to reopen most schools Tuesday. Of 30,000 classrooms, just 300 remained unsafe, virtually all of them in the hard-hit West Valley. School Board President Leticia Quezada said: "My hope is that all children will be able to attend school one way or another" next week.

*About 10,000 households in the northwest San Fernando Valley, mostly in Northridge and Granada Hills, were still without running water Saturday. There were up to 4,000 waterless households in the Santa Clarita Valley, officials there said.

Southern California Gas Co. officials said they have restored service to some 40,000 homes as part of continuing door-to-door sweeps and have identified at least that many more that are still without gas. They also urged customers to shut off gas to any appliances that shifted during the temblor and to avoid shutting off gas to the whole house unless there is a gas leak.

*At an afternoon briefing at Caltech, officials said the aftershock frequency was decreasing. After four aftershocks of magnitude 4 to 4.6 hit Friday in a 20-minute span, only four tremors--all magnitude 3.0 or less--were recorded on Saturday.

*In Los Angeles, officials announced new plans to open seven more emergency assistance shelters by Monday, bringing the total to 20. Gov. Pete Wilson confirmed that state workers beginning Sunday will assist FEMA in manning disaster centers, where quake victims have faced huge lines and long delays in being served.

RECOVERY:

Stung by increasing criticism of red tape, officials defended their relief efforts, proclaiming that they are setting up the largest assistance program in U.S. history to deal with the most damaging earthquake ever centered in a large American city--one where the state has roughly estimated damages could exceed $30 billion.

"We are now dealing with the largest mass assistance of people in an urban area in the history of the United States," said Henry Cisneros, secretary of federal Housing and Urban Development.

Of the $283 million in new money released Saturday, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said $140 million will be for Small Business Administration loans and the other $143 million for a range of Federal Emergency Management Agency activities, including individual grants for emergency housing and repair of damaged public facilities.

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